Disability in Theatre: Part II – The Theatre-Performer

Following on from Part I in this series: disability in theatre from the perspective of the theatre-goer, this set of interviews looks at disabled performers in the industry.

Interviewee Fuchsia has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and is a wheelchair user because of a spinal injury. She can walk a bit but finds it very painful and exhausting. Leah also has EDS and says it affects her personally by causing her joints to dislocate 50-60 times per day. It has also caused a loss of sight which is not fixed by glasses, meaning she is registered legally blind.

These two disabled actors took the time to discuss how they are received in the industry as disabled performers, the struggles they face to get into the industry (and the buildings), and the lack of representation of disabled actors in the industry.

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Part II – The Theatre-Performer

When Fuchsia and Leah can get into auditions, get access to the theatres and casting rooms and get on the stage, they have both said that they are generally well-received from audiences, staff and other cast members. However, it is often the prior part to the performance which proves difficult.

Over the seven years that Fuchsia has been a disabled performer, she has only ever been in one play. This is not down to her talent, I can assure you, but instead is because she has been unable to get in the door. Many theatres say they are accessible but simply aren’t. Over a 2-year period in which Fuchsia had an agent, she has been unable to access over 150 auditions because of a lack of access.

Not only is this frustrating time-and-time again, but also takes up a considerable part of her day-to-day life. Fuchsia claimed that she “didn’t realise as a disabled person that being an actor would be so difficult”. Fuchsia trained as an actor before she became disabled and said that as an able-bodied person, she would be able to attend 5 auditions in one day but this is simply not possible as a disabled person.

Therefore, by attempting to attend over 150 auditions and not being granted access to any, this is disheartening, time-consuming and, quite frankly, ridiculous. As explained in Part I of this series, disability is not a niche thing but is something that does, and can, happen to all of us. The fact that access in the theatre industry is this bad is atrocious.

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Interviewee Fuchsia

Leah has said that she has not “even properly entered the world of auditions and roles” but has “already lost count of times I’ve been turned down for an audition, even after having been given a slot, because they found out I was in a wheelchair and “the role just wasn’t right”’.

Something that Fuchsia said really stuck out to me in that changes are being done but only to comply with access rules, rather than to really help. This seems true in Leah’s above case because they went far enough to invite her to the audition and then turned her down. Similarly, Fuchsia describes one incident where casting directors said she would be perfect for the role and had the money to put in ramps for her to allow access to the stage and dressing rooms but when it came down to it, they didn’t follow through. So while some changes are being made, not enough is being done to get disabled actors on stage.

This lack of effort or care to have disabled actors present on stage is definitely echoed in the “real world”. How many disabled actors have you seen on stage in the West End, Broadway, local or touring productions? Leah says that she is “absolutely appalled by the lack of disabled performers” on stage. Training to be a performer she continues: “By not having people in the industry to pave the way…we have no one to look up to in the industry”. It makes it incredibly hard for disabled actors to break through in an industry where no one before them has made headway.

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Interviewee Leah

As already stated, disability is something that will happen to all of us, no matter the circumstance. While I, personally, am an able-bodied person, I have on numerous occasions been on crutches and, for a short period of time, been disabled. While I recognise I am fortunate to be able-bodied, there is an overwhelming number of people who are more permanently disabled and they deserve to see themselves and their communities represented on stage and not be ostracised.

Tom Fletcher’s musical The Christmasauras was live on stage in December 2017 at the Eventim Apollo in London. This show made a big effort to include disabled actors, one of which was Jake Stacey: a 12-year-old boy who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy and is in a wheelchair. It is steps like this that need to be taken to continually represent a large part of our society. Upon hearing that Jake was on stage in London, Fuchsia was touched and said it was “definitely a step in the right direction”. While Leah agreed that it was great for Jake to be on stage, she also pointed out that it shouldn’t be such a big deal; it shouldn’t be described as giving disabled people “a chance on stage” as disabled people should be given the same equal chances as able-bodied people in every situation, rather than just in some theatres on some occasions.

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Tom Fletcher and Jake Stacey in The Christmasauras

What Fuchsia and Leah both agreed on, was that having able-bodied actors playing disabled characters was awful. Physically disabled characters in a handful of shows include Nessarose from Wicked (wheelchair bound), Crutchie from Newsies (on crutches), Dr Everett Scott from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (wheelchair bound), Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tiny Tim from Scrooge and many more. Leah is determined to change the fact that Nessarose has been played by an able-bodied person for its 12-year run in the West End, when the character could very well be played by someone who was naturally in a wheelchair.

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Characters Elphaba and Nessarose in Wicked

What seems to be made clear, then, is that while some changes are being made, not enough is being done. Tom Fletcher encouraging disabled actors is fantastic, though not enough people in the industry are of the same mindset. Fuchsia has seen both sides of theatre, being both an able-bodied and disabled actor, and has noticed that “it has come on leaps and bounds. When training as an actor 20 years ago there weren’t wheelchair spaces, accessible toilets or disabled actors on stage”, but still not enough is being done to help disabled performers. She describes it as “they want me on stage, but they can’t get me on stage”.

Both these ladies have, however, experienced some really positive attitudes towards their situations. Leah has said that she has met with casting directors who have allowed her to send in audition tapes if the access to audition rooms was not suitable, and Fuchsia has had theatres which are accessible. Both have also had some great experiences when visiting theatres too as theatre-goers, with Leah saying that The Other Palace is really accessible with amazing staff, and Fuchsia loving the Victoria Palace and The Palace Theatres with their accessibility.

What is evident from these interviews is that neither of these strong and talented women are going to stop performing and trying to get in the door any time soon. Fuchsia has expressed that it is “still going to be a very long road” and “is fed up of not being able to get in” but is not going to give up. Leah has said that while she can’t dance in the same way as others, she follows the choreography the same, and, in spite being in a lot of pain at times, is determined to always push through the rehearsals and performances. Leah said that she hadn’t considered performing before her disability and “it was only when I became sick that I had the drive to push for a dream by wanting to be part of a movement in the way performing is accepted when you have a disability”. Hoping to study her Master’s in Musical Theatre (MAMT), she plans on performing in exactly the same way as the rest of her classmates.

I’ve said it before in Part I, I’ve said it now in Part II and I’ll inevitably say it again in Part III, but theatres need to increase their access for disabled people, they need to increase their representation of disabled people and they need to do it to make theatre an industry for everyone.

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